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"Units requested for structure fire at 1215 Conch Drive. Flames visible." Jake Rollins tossed the red bubble light onto the dash of his 4Runner as the scanner continued its commentary from the floorboard. He was going to miss his meeting.
The calls sometimes came in the middle of the night. Fire didn't have an alarm clock and accidents didn't have a time schedule. Little children didn't get lost— and found—according to what was convenient for emergency personnel.
Jake shifted gears, preacher to firefighter. He might not be a smoke-eater anymore, but he still fought fires his own way, fighting the damage they did—to their victims and to the people who walked fearlessly into them—every day. Fire had almost destroyed him.
It was only the grace of God that had saved him, only God that could have brought him back from the pit he'd been in when he'd discovered he couldn't be a firefighter anymore. God had given him a new purpose, serving others in a way that he hadn't been able to before—and working for the department in a way that would never have been cool to him before—as Sea Breeze, Florida's, first fire department chaplain.
He leaned over to turn the scanner up, listening for details. Emergency vehicles and beach traffic didn't mix well. A horn blared as he shot into an opening in the next lane.
Jake whipped into the neighborhood, pulling to a stop. A smear of charcoal-gray smoke in the sky told him he was in the right place without him even checking the address. Police had closed off the perimeter, but the turnout gear that he was required to wear on scene eased the way. The crew from his old stationhouse was on duty. Two firefighters trained spray from the heavy hose onto the burning structure and Captain Caruso wore a path in the lawn, barking orders into his walkie-talkie.
Tension tightened Jake's shoulders. When things went well at a job, the men who fought the fires cracked jokes to handle the stresses of a high-pressure job. That was a good day.
When they didn't get to a scene in time—when there was a victim, or when the structure was too compromised to stay inside and fight—that was a bad day. Two of his friends stumbled through the smoke pouring out the open front door. As they got closer to the captain, firefighter Todd Blankenship shook his head. Not a good day.
The muscles in Jake's arms twitched. He wanted to be in there—every fire, every time. He'd been trained for this, born for this, but his injury limited his motion and effectively ended his career with the fire department. It didn't end his desire to be in the middle of the action, to make up somehow for failing to do his job when it mattered most.
Jake stepped up beside the captain as Todd pushed his faceplate back. "We were too late."
"You got a name, Cap?" Jake checked out the structure. It barely looked like a house anymore. Smoke poured from every crevice, hot orange flames licking at the roofline.
The captain rifled through a clipboard of papers. "Sharon Hardin."
Fire punched through the roof as recognition punched Jake in the gut. He knew Sharon. She went to his church, had been coordinating a mission trip. They'd been working closely together to organize the overseas trip, meeting regularly to hammer out the details.
He'd taken her for coffee three days ago.
Flames shot into the sky with crackling laughter. The captain rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth. "Clark and Hughes still in there?"
"Yes, sir." Blankenship pushed a weary hand through sweaty hair.
"Team four, get out now. Get out now."
The walkie-talkie crackled. "Two minutes, sir."
Jake could hear the dejection in Lara Hughes's voice. She wouldn't want to talk, but she would need to, later.
They all would, but for now, they needed to get out of that structure while they still had time.
Thirty seconds stretched as, outside, firefighters cooled the blaze with a powerful stream of water. They waited for the two-person team to exit the building. The seconds ticked by until finally, head down, Hughes came out full speed. Smoke billowed around Matt Clark as he followed her out. He thrust his helmet back, his grimy, sooty face bleak.
The squad's captain waited for him to get close. "What's the word, Clark?"
"She was already dead when we went in." Clark unbuckled his gear. "The inspectors are gonna have a ton of evidence to collect on this one. Something weird went down in there."
The captain stared into the smoke as if he could figure out the answers just from studying it. Sometimes it seemed to Jake that he could.
A shout came from the other side of the building. Captain Caruso strode toward it, leaving Jake with Lara Hughes. His throat burned. The smoke, maybe. Maybe just too many remembered emotions crowding in where they didn't belong. Not on the job—even when, maybe especially when, a friend had died in that house.
Lara pulled her helmet off, revealing a sweaty blond ponytail. Jake squeezed her shoulder. "You okay?"
"Yeah. It was a tough one, finding her like that. I thought maybe we'd gotten here in time when the cops told us that was her car out front. But she didn't have a chance." Lara Hughes kicked at the grass, dry beneath their feet.
"There's not anyone here who would fight harder for a victim than you."
Lara Hughes, who would take on any man out here in a shoving match, grabbed Jake in a tight hug. "I know that. But thanks."
With the fire now out, she slammed her helmet back on her head and went into the building to begin the cleanup. Jake stared after her, his gut aching for the men and women of his old crew who were dealing with a tough loss today. For himself, he couldn't begin to process it.
Matt Clark stuck his head out the front door of the building. "Jake, come in here. Cap says you need to see this."
He pushed through the ruined front door. The still-smoking building cracked and hissed. Water dripped from every surface. The stench of soggy, burned fabric and carpet, while familiar, still overwhelmed him.
The firefighters, his friends, wouldn't meet his eyes. Something was wrong. More wrong than a woman dying in a fire. Dread and anxiety knotted inside him as he looked from face to face.
He angled past them farther into the room, where he could see the evidence that this fire probably didn't start by accident. What looked like multiple points of origin made uneven burn patterns on the walls.
"She's in here." Captain Caruso poked his head out from the bedroom door. "Don't touch anything."
Jake stepped into the room and nearly grabbed for the door frame before he caught himself. He'd walked into a nightmare—one he didn't have nightly anymore, but still often enough to make his stomach rebel at the sight.
The captain reached for his shoulder. "Jake, take it easy."
Clad in a girlish white dress, Sharon had been placed on the bed, her arms crossed at the waist. On her left hand was a slim embossed gold ring that Jake would bet didn't belong to her. He knew without looking what would be on the night table. And when he glanced over, he saw he was right—a silver cross and a tiny glass figurine of a dancing girl. Wilted flowers.
"Why didn't this burn?" His voice sounded strangled, even to himself.
"Best I can figure, the arsonist sprayed some kind of fire retardant on it. There's an odor you can just get a whiff of. We'll know more after the evidence is tested." Matt Clark had been his best friend while he served the fire department. He punched Jake in the shoulder. "Hey, you okay?"
"We need to preserve the scene." The captain looked up from his clipboard. "Someone call Cruse Conyers at the SBPD and get the crime-scene unit here."
"I'll try to find out who her next of kin is." How strange that Jake could know the right thing to say.
Every piece of the carefully set scene matched his last fire. The fire that had killed his fiancée, Julie. The dress, the flowers that maybe she bought herself but no one could remember seeing her buy. Even the figurine that he knew didn't belong to her but couldn't be proven.
Everyone in his crew knew that fire had been set but no one had ever been able to establish it wasn't accidental.
"Jake?" Matt Clark stepped up beside him, his turnout gear rustling in the strangely quiet house, the dripping water the only other sound. "What do you make of that?"
The wall above the bed hadn't burned. It didn't look damaged from the fire at all. But in the center of the wall, someone had spray-painted a big number two and circled it.
"I think he's telling us there will be more." The captain resettled his helmet on his head. He looked directly at Jake. "And it implies there was a number one."
Jake didn't have to ask who the number one was. He knew. "Julie."
Everyone had assumed that her killer had been passing through. That she'd been a random target, chosen while she was jogging down the beach, or followed home from the grocery store. And though they assumed he had killed before because he was too organized, they figured he'd moved on, that he wouldn't be back here in this small Florida town where everyone knew everyone else.
The captain broke the silence. "Hughes, get the cops on the horn, and tell everyone to keep a lid on it."
The last thing the captain would want was a leak that they had a serial arsonist, much less a serial killer around town. The panic that would ensue would be difficult if not impossible to control.
As Jake studied the number two on the wall, the paint underneath it began to bubble. The room filled with a crackling noise, like the sound of Rice Krispies in milk. "Captain, rekindle."
Instantly the room erupted in motion, the captain yelling into his walkie-talkie. "Get a hose in here."
As Matt Clark punched a fist-sized hole in the wall waist high, the captain pushed at the head of the bed. "Rollins, help me get the bed out of the way. We need to preserve as much of this as we can."
Jake hauled the bed across the room as the captain pushed from the other side. His damaged back protested with a stab of pain. Hughes tossed him a tarp.
He settled it over the top of the bed in an effort to preserve the scene for the arson investigators and crime-scene detectives. Every piece of evidence counted. Fighting the fire wasn't his responsibility anymore, but taking care of the victims was, even if this victim— Sharon—would never know.
Smoke filled the room again as the firefighters crowded into the small space, suppressing the fire that had hidden in the walls, sneaky little thief that it was. The old house groaned and dripped, the whole thing a backdrop for a horrible crime.
Who would do such a twisted thing to Sharon? Could Julie's killer have come back to strike again three years later? It didn't make sense. Why now? Why Sharon? He'd been spending a good bit of time with her because of the upcoming mission trip.
He didn't like the train of thought his mind was taking. He knew the time spent with Sharon had just been coffee and they'd only talked about church business, but did the killer? Because the only link he could think of between Sharon Hardin and his fiancée… was him.
Two days later, Supervisory Special Agent Chloe Davis rolled into a town she'd never expected to see again once she'd transferred to the FBI's Serial Crimes Unit. Sea Breeze, Florida, was a picturesque beachside village with just the right mix of kitsch and charm. It made her palms itch.
Give her the big city any day. The crowds, the noise, the anonymity. She'd spent too much time undercover to want it—need it—any other way.
She pulled into the parking lot at the police station, a tall, nondescript gray building. Leaning on the window of a red Toyota 4Runner was an old friend. She and Gabe Sloan had worked a case together, though he hadn't known that for most of it. She'd been undercover trying to expose a drug-smuggling ring. His fiancée, Sailor, had been one of her suspects. And when someone tried to kill Sailor, Chloe'd been one of his.
When she slammed the door of her Honda Accord, he turned around. After a moment's scrutiny a wide smile split his face. "Well, if it isn't our teenage urchin. Not looking so waiflike anymore."
She glanced down at her slim black pants and suit jacket, her gold badge attached at the hip. "No, full professional form today. Not as much fun as playing a hooker or impersonating a high-priced lawyer, but not as dangerous—most days. My insurance company is happy at least."
As she spoke, she took note of the other man. Early to mid-thirties, nice-looking, hot and sweaty, a little rough around the edges, maybe. His face was dirty, his blue eyes red-rimmed. Still, some indefinable quality made her want to step closer, see what was behind those eyes.
He pushed the door to his truck open and she automatically shifted her stance to a defensive one. Gabe noticed, but only smiled as the guy's feet hit the pavement. And as they did, she saw why the dude's eyes were red-rimmed. He was a firefighter. He'd taken off his turnout coat, but he still wore the heavy Nomex pants and boots.
"Supervisory Special Agent Chloe Davis, meet my friend Jake Rollins. Forgive his appearance, Chloe, he's been busy inhaling a little smoke today."
Jake's eyes darted to meet Gabe's. "Special Agent…? She's with the FBI? So, she's here…"
"Chloe's recently been assigned to the Serial Crimes Unit. She's here as a special favor to me. Sharon's death two days ago brought a whole new aspect to this case that we hadn't expected. Until we figure out the nature of the criminal we're dealing with, we can follow the physical evidence, but we have precious little to go on. That's what Chloe's here for."
"But…" Whatever he'd been about to say, he swallowed it back, nodding instead, before turning to his truck. "I'd better get to work."
"Hey, Rollins. When I was at the scene today, you were holding a mother's hand. Did they find the kid?"